A beginner’s guide to Aachen
The small German city of Aachen hasn’t necessarily captured the imagination of travellers in recent years, but – if you’re travelling by train - it’s an incredibly accessible city that’s worth exploring.
It’s Easy to Get to
Aachen is the kind of destination that makes an interesting day-trip, whichever direction you’re travelling across Europe’s vast rail network.
I travelled from London - taking the Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels, and then changing onto a Thalys train to Aachen. The whole trip took about four hours from the centre of London to the centre of Aachen – no endless hanging around airports, and you can take as much luggage as you can carry.
Aachen is Germany’s westernmost city - close to the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. It was as a Roman spa town that Aachen first came to prominence, but even after the withdrawal of the Romans, Aachen remained a city of regional importance. Initially, Aachen was a centre of power for the empire of the Franks, and thereafter remained an important trading city throughout the Middle Ages.
Historically, Aachen was the city where the coronation of the kings of Germany took place. It’s in Aachen where you’ll find the grave of Charlemagne, who died in the year 814. Charlemagne was the Frankish king who united most of Western Europe for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The narrow, cobbled streets of the centre of the old town surrounding the cathedral and the town hall easily transport you back in time, back to the Middle Ages, back to the days of the Franks when the kings of Germany came here to claim their crown.
Surviving World War II
During the extended conflict of World War II, the city of Aachen was severely damaged. The US infantry laid siege to Aachen for a prolonged period, before the city became the first German city to fall to the Allied armies. Much of the city was destroyed, but the ancient cathedral and the almost Gothic town hall remain standing.
What strikes you about Aachen is that it’s an incredibly liveable city – modern, industrious, extensive retail options, and attractive restaurants and bars.
There’s no denying that Aachen doesn’t really have major landmarks or stunning tourist attractions that will have the crowds swarming in, but it’s an attractive city that gives an easy glimpse into modern German life.
As most of the city had to be rebuilt following the devastation of World War II, it now feels a very modern and dynamic place to live. This is the kind of city you could easily come to for a fun weekend of shopping – all the high street brands are here, and somehow shopping is more fun when you’re away from home.
The Food and Drink
Germany is not a place to go for light, healthy, eating. They seem to like hearty fare washed down with beer. My favourite beers were the local Bitburger and the Gaffel – both blond beers with light flavours – the perfect accompaniment for my veal schnitzel in a basement restaurant, somewhere in the middle of the old town.
I liked Aachen’s bakeries too – lots of different sorts of pastries, and a different experience from the delicate refinement of French patisserie. The Germans seem to value lots of sugar and strong flavours over everything else. I started my day with a Berliner donut – sugar coated and filled with apricot jam. Not the healthiest breakfast, but undeniably delicious.
Where to stay
On my visit I stayed at the Hotel Novotel Aachen City, a reliable brand. Although this property doesn’t look particularly inspiring from the outside, it was actually a surprisingly good option – an easy walk from the train station, this is a modern hotel with functional rooms, and putting you within walking distance to everything you need to do in Aachen.
Where to drink
- Egmont – A cool, relaxed bar, popular with locals.
Where to eat
- Lasaro restaurant: I was unable to resist a stonking big veal schnitzel.
- Nobis bakery: In the heart of the old town - this is the place to devour sugary donuts filled with apricot jam.